May 20, 2019


French schools have a brilliant vacation schedule; it boils down to 6 weeks on, 2 weeks off. Those 2-week periods (in October, December, February, April) are lucky chances to rove the continent with the girls. We like to randomly choose new places. Portugal was our choice this round and we wanted to go to the southern coast for its beaches.

We pulled out a map and pointed to the southwestern-most tip of the country and chose Sagres as our home base. Such a fortunate accident. We liked everything we visited, but some parts of the southern coast of Portugal are too built-up. Sagres is wild. Hardly built at all. Almost like surfer shacks and an ice cream and pizza joint. Very charming. Since Sagres is both ocean and gulf-facing, the beaches on every side of the town feel like different dominions. Sharp, steep cliffs and rough water on one side and glassy, turquoise sea on the other. End of April, but tranquil early summer air.

Xavier got stuck in New York early in the week and it meant that I was on my own to travel with the girls to Portugal and he would meet us there. At first, I will admit, I was slightly daunted. Romy is pretty manageable at this point, but she's conserved her wild side, which, when stored, can come out strong. After our initial flight to Lisbon, we still had a three-hour drive to get to Sagres. It was a straight shot and turned out to be a lot of fun and Romy behaved. At some point we crossed an enormous bridge. Marguerite said to the girls, "Look up! This bridge is incredible!" Colette responded, "Yes, but is it secure?!"

Praia do Beliche, Sagres

Praia da Mareta, Sagres

Praia do Martinhal, Sagres

Marguerite and Colette decided to erect 100 sandcastle towers. They kept on and got there.

We also visited more renowned sections of the Algarve. Further east from Sagres sits Lagos and its beach, Praia Dona Ana. Honestly, it was magnificent, but it is an example of what happens when an incredible stretch of nature gets overrun by people and concrete. Right along the water remained spotless and the girls jumped endlessly in the waves.

The streets and alleys of Lagos smelled of wonder. I watched the girls together, a little band of ladies, running everywhere, free.
Moments where we are sort of mashed together in time and place grant a level of affinity that everyday life can hampers. We caught little reflections and all smiled together as we listened.


“Which is longer, day or night?”
"I love my hands. They are just the right size.”

and Romy:

"Is Tuesday vendredi"

April 30, 2019

French school chronicles: CP

Colette is in “CP” this year. CP is the first year of primary school (after the three years of Maternelle, pre-school) in France. There is a lot of buildup. Romy talks about CP with a far away look in her eyes and asks with wonder and disbelief if one day it will be her sitting in those desks. CP is the year school becomes academic in France and kids come home with real homework: dictation, reading lessons and math. Colette is a natural, a very focused student. It is funny to think three years ago I was so anxious about how school would go for her here.

In preparation for the new school/big step up, all the parents meet with the school director. We dutifully signed up for an appointment. The day of, Xavier was late and so I dove right in. In these precise moments, I have the feeling that there are certain social codes that I just don’t know. Until the moment he did walk in (ten minutes later), there was tension hanging in the air that his entrance essentially swallowed up. I am perfectly fluent in French, but I sometimes get the impression that my questions aren’t the right ones. There is also a funny dynamic - a complicity I lack that flows naturally between a native French parent and a member of the French system like this person…an understanding that they have the same frame of reference.

In any case, before Xavier walked in I asked a few questions. For example, “What are the primary differences between Maternelle and CP?” Her response was idiotic from my point of view. “The main difference is that at drop-off parents must leave their child at the gate of the school, unlike in Maternelle, and you must say goodbye then and there.” OK, got it. I tried to steer the conversation and asked about the curriculum. She looked at me with a furrowed brow. Surely I understood that CP was primarily focused on reading and language. Right, of course. I asked her if there were other international families or English speakers at the school. She looked at me a bit exasperated and said this is not an international school. If I was looking for that, I should go elsewhere. I insisted that indeed we were not looking for that, that we had come to this village so that our girls would integrate into French life, not to foster their English. She nodded begrudgingly. I breathed in uneasily. She kept a stern look. It was awkward.

Xavier burst into the room. He just has social grease I may never find in France (and every time we go back to the United States I realize I have in abundance).

“Bonjour, please forgive my tardiness. Work…you know how it goes, but look at your desk and all these binders, obviously your work is endless. My goodness, what a job this is.”

I watched with disbelief as she puffed up with pride; he was scratching her itchy ego in all the right places. He continued the charm offensive launching straight into quite a story about his own intimidating director at primary school who would confiscate his contraband - harmonicas, marbles and magazines - all forbidden. At the end of his final year of primary school, the stern, mustached director called him into his office. Little Xavier’s ears burned as he sat nervously on the edge of the chair facing the director. The director went to his closet and ceremoniously pulled out a big metal box, which was divided into compartments. One of the compartments had Xavier’s name on it and the director slowly plucked out his treasures, and displayed them item by item on the desk in front of Xavier. Not a word. Xavier recounted how his eyes filled with delight, but how he forced himself to stay absolutely silent, his hands also muted in his lap. The director told Xavier to pick up his things and then wished him luck in his years ahead.

(Nervous that the director might find Xavier’s tale a bit long, I glanced over at her to see she was completely caught up in the story).

“Now, I’ll bet you have a box like that somewhere in this office,” he joked. Madame director chuckled and said, “Well, that is my secret.” The rest of the meeting was an exchange of stories about primary school and how Macron and other politicians perceive education. She even warmed to me a bit in the end because of my wise choice in coupling.

We walked out and I asked Xavier why he hadn’t focused on the more daily issues of school and what we should expect for Colette. He said I had it all backwards. “First you have to seduce (as the French say, “win-over”) the director, the teacher, whoever it is you are facing. Then you ask questions like that. Plus, all of that is boring. I already knew all the answers to those questions.” (He is French, after all, he teased).

April 29, 2019

April Iris

In April, the landscape in Provence becomes a series of Van Gogh paintings. The light divine - irisé (an adjective in French).
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